American, born in Canada
Agnes Martin was a leading figure of Abstract Expressionism who drew her inspiration from Zen Buddhist and American Transcendentalist ideas. Her signature works are meditative, large format canvases and works on paper, covered in serene geometric abstractions and penciled grids.
Martin was born on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, one of four siblings. The family left rural life for Vancouver, B.C., when she was six years old and she spent her childhood there until immigrating to the U.S. in Washington state at age 19. She attended Western Washington University, studying to become a teacher, but relocated to New York City to earn her degree in art education from Teachers College at Columbia University. It was there that she began to draw and paint, and where she first encountered the lectures of Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki. Zen philosophy would establish the deeply held personal beliefs for truth, beauty, and perfection that would become central to Martin’s art making. The experience she would ultimately work to achieve: "the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean."
In addition to graduate studies and a period of teaching at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Martin attended UNM’s Summer Field School in Taos in 1947. It was there that she made her first abstract paintings and had her first exhibition, at the Harwood Museum. These were primarily biomorphic paintings in subdued colors, like the museum’s Untitled (1949) oil on Masonite, most of which she destroyed later in her career. A mountain enclave of progressive artists escaping the urban centers of New York and San Francisco, Taos would have a lasting impact on Martin’s life and work. She stayed there five years before influential gallerist Betty Parsons convinced her to return to New York in 1957 and show at the gallery.
Upon returning to the East Coast, Martin rented a studio at Coenties Slip, a small district of converted sail-making lofts in lower Manhattan where Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman were living. Although not highly social, Martin developed a close circle, including her dear friend and mentor Ad Reinhardt. Typical of her work at this stage is the painting Untitled (1959) held in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum; the canvas shows four white rectangles outlined by hand in graphite on a subtly muted pink background.
In New York, Martin integrated a blue-gray palette into her increasingly geometric works, inspired by the harbor. She continued there the next ten years, departing from the strong gestural style of Abstract Expressionism and the machine-like repetition of Minimalism. Inspired by her love of Asian philosophy and the spiritual writing of Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin expressed admiration for Mark Rothko’s color field painting, saying he had, “…reached zero so that nothing stood in the way of the truth.” Her own breakthrough came in the early 1960s when she pared down her imagery on 6 foot by 6 foot canvases to densely penciled grids, often painted with a filmy layer of gesso. Her 1963 painting at the Museum of Modern Art, Friendship, embodies this moment in her career, a grid of gold leaf and oil on canvas. Although works from this period were included in a Minimalism show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, her paintings in fact are entirely handmade, with small unmistakable flaws.
The following year, Coenties Slip was slated for demolition and Ad Reinhardt died suddenly of a heart attack. Devastated and struggling with her own mental health, Martin spent the next year and half traveling the Western U.S. and Canada, writing rather than painting, before finally returning to New Mexico. After a period of isolation and meditation in the small villages of Cuba and Galisteo, Martin resumed her painting in the early 1970s and re-settled permanently in Taos. This later work is characterized by a more diverse palette, often evoking muted desert colors, with bold stripes taking over as the primary compositional device. She worked in this method for the next 25 years, even re-instating her early practice of titling her pieces. The Tate Museum holds a prime example of this period, Happy Holiday (1999), in pale peach and blue. In addition, the Harwood Museum in Taos has permanently installed a group of works from the period in the octagonal Agnes Martin Gallery, featuring benches by Donald Judd and an oculus.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art organized Martin’s first retrospective in 1973, followed by London's Hayward Gallery, and another major show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in the early 1990s. She received the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale, as well as the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1990s. Martin died in Taos at the age of 92.
More information on Agnes Martin can be found in the National Gallery of Art